How to Become An Internet Tycoon

Michael Brown

How much do you pay to access the Internet? According to J.D. Powe r and Associates, the average price for high-speed access is $42.13 per month. Although you’re paying for 24/7 availability, you’re actually using only a fraction of that time. Divide that monthly fee by the number of minutes you’re actively online—when you’re not working, commuting, eating, watching TV, playing single-player games, sleeping, exercising, or doing whatever else you do when you’re not on the Internet—and broadband Internet access looks outlandishly expensive.

Now what if you could share that pipe—and split the cost—with your neighbors? Hmm. If the pipe’s fat enough, and you can get enough people to sign up, you could turn a nice profit. If you’re thinking the cost of the necessary infrastructure would present a barrier, you probably haven’t heard of Meraki .

Meraki Networks started out as a Ph.D. research project at MIT, but it has blossomed into a small company headquartered in Mountain View, California. The company’s mission, CEO and Co-Founder Sanjit Biswas told me in a recent interview, is to “bring affordable Internet access to the next billion people.” A noble goal to be sure, but I’m more interested in making money off my excess bandwidth.

Here’s how it works: To share your Cable or DSL connection, simply plug a Meraki Mini into your Cable or DSL modem and install Meraki’s Dashboard software on your PC. The Mini acts as a gateway, allowing anyone within range to share your connection to the Internet. The size of the network is limited only by the number of Meraki Mini’s you deploy, since each one acts as a relay. In this respect, Meraki is similar to two other mesh network systems we’re fond of: Zensys’ Z-Wave and Sonos’ Digital Music System--on much larger scale. But where these two systems are limited to a single household, a Meraki network can cover an entire apartment building, an entire neighborhood, or even an entire city.

Meraki Networks' repeaters not only allow you to share your Internet connection with your neighbors, it also comes with the software infrastructure you'll need to bill them for the privilege.

So, how do you make money off this? As the owner of the network, you grant or deny access to and establish policies for the network via Meraki’s Dashboard software. Dashboard comes complete with security and encryption, network branding and splash pages, detailed usage reporting, and network management. More importantly, the software has an integrated billing module, including fee schedules, support for major credit cards, and automated collections. If anyone abuses the network—by sucking up huge amounts of bandwidth via BitTorrent , for instance—you can turn off their access until they agree to behave.

The Meraki Mini ($50, available now) is an indoor repeater capable of serving wireless adapters within a 100- to 150-feet radius. The Meraki Mini Outdoor ($100, also available now) is a weatherized version of the same device with an outdoor range of 300- to 750-feet. The company will ship an improved version of their outdoor repeater, the Meraki 3, in August. The new device has the same range as the first, but you can by extend its territory by installing third-party antennas .
Both outdoor modules are capable of running on Power over Ethernet (PoE), but Meraki will also ship in August a kit containing a solar panel and a battery pack, so that repeaters can be set up nearly anywhere without the need for electrical power.

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